Luke 13:6-9 || Cultivating Grace & Opportunity

A Reflection by Dan Spragg

This is a picture of a rather large tree. It can be found in the town of Lahaina, on the Island of Maui, in Hawaii.

It is a Banyan Tree – a sub species of the Fig. It was planted in 1873 after being transported from India. When it was planted it was 2.5 metres tall. Today, it is around 20 metres tall and has spread quite far as you can see… it actually now takes up an area just over half an acre and is made up of 16 trunks so while it appears there are 16 different trees it is in fact just one tree! The branches send down shoots that take root once they hit the ground which allows the tree to spread quite dramatically both vertically and horizontally. There are markets set up beneath the canopy, it is lit up spectacularly with lights at night and apparently the noise of the birds drown out the traffic and city noises from all around! This tree is now 145 years old. Fig trees generally do grow for a long time – some folklore has them living for over 1300 years!

Isn’t it amazing what this tree has become over time? It’s quite amazing what it has allowed to happen around it as people and tree have adapted over time.

Our parable today is a little bit strange – it seems to almost appear out of nowhere and doesn’t appear to have a clear intention or direction. It’s actually quite a brutal little story – the Fig tree doesn’t get away lightly with having decided to not bear fruit for three years. I can certainly appreciate the owner’s frustration – here he had planted a lovely companion tree for his grapes and it doesn’t appear to be doing its job! Why not make space for something else? I can also appreciate the gardener’s perspective though. The gardener being a good gardener sees that the tree isn’t finished yet and just needs some encouragement. The gardener sees that with a little help, some food, and some attention paid to the soil; a little encouragement by digging around the roots could remind the tree of the fruit it was meant to be producing! It was quite good for the tree actually that both the owner and the gardener were paying it some attention. The owner had a certain amount of patience, he had been looking for three years, looking for fruit. The gardener too had patience, patience to still see what could be. This of course meant that the poor tree didn’t immediately get uprooted and thrown on the bonfire. The point I think was that both the owner and the gardener were looking… they were taking notice, paying attention… the owner looked for what was in the moment and the gardener was looking for what could be. Both these perspectives were quite useful and cause us to be able to ask the exciting follow up questions: What happened to the tree? Did it get cut down a year later or did it bear fruit? Who was right, the gardener or the owner? We can only wonder!

Looking for what is in the moment and looking for what could be in the future are both valuable perspectives and I would say are both needed. Some of us will be better at one or the other. Some will notice where we are in this moment with amazing perception and interpretation. Others will be able to imagine vivid pictures of a fruitful future that inspire and lead us on. Both are needed. All are needed.

In his bestselling book Good to Great business and management guru Jim Collins reports on a mammoth study he and a team of researchers conducted looking into the question of why some companies seem to be able to make the leap from being a good company with good performance indicators to being a great company, one that leaves its competition in its dust. One of the keys to success that they identified was that of an aspect of disciplined thought – the art of being able to confront the brutal facts, yet never losing faith. He tells the story of American military officer Admiral Jim Stockdale who during the Vietnam War was tortured over twenty times during an eight year imprisonment. He earned a number of medals upon his release due to the way in which he conducted himself during his time in the prison camp; he set about organising the other prisoners, he devised elaborate secret communications systems within the prison population to break the feelings of isolation, he instituted rules that helped the other prisoners deal with torture, along with a number of other things. During his research for the book Collins got the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Stockdale considering the big question of how on earth did he deal with the horrendous situation in the prison camp while having no idea if he would ever make it out alive or not? Collins writes this:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and as we continued the slow walk… Stockdale limping and arc swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred metres of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day, I carry around a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: ‘We’re not getting out by Christmas, deal with it!”[1]

Collins calls this The Stockdale Paradox – being able to confront the brutal facts while never losing faith in the end goal. What does this paradox have to say to us? What does this and the parable of the fig tree have to say to us where we are right now? What does this have to say to us about how we be and do church?

We are living in a kind of in-between zone. It’s a rich place that we find ourselves in actually because we have with us the traditions and structures of the past as well as the innovation and fresh winds of the future. There is very much a sense in which we are both inheritors and perpetuators of the old, and incubators and start up generators of the new – there is richness in both. We are surrounded by many activities that have been going on for quite a time and we are in a season of experimentation with new and exciting activities and ideas being birthed. The question we must ask ourselves in this time is ‘how are we looking?’ How are our eyes? Do we intentionally look for fruit? Do we look with perceptive eyes that recognise the fruit where there is fruit and the barren trees where they are? Or, do we look with eyes that only see issues and problems – whether those things be found in the old or the new? Or, do we look with naïve eyes that only see what we would like to see? Do we look with perceptive eyes that acknowledge the brutal reality yet see the potential that is still present?

The combined effort of the vineyard owner and the gardener cultivated in fact the perfect environment – a climate of grace and opportunity. The tree’s existence from that point on was held in grace and in opportunity, but also in a realism that wasn’t going to drag it on past its best before date. There is a sense in which this climate of grace and opportunity was grounded in both what was and in what could be. Is this the climate we create as we find ourselves in this season of both old and new? Are we willing to confront the reality no matter how brutal, yet never lose faith?

This is for us of course only possible with faith, faith in God. The presence of faith allows the brutal reality to be acknowledged and for the hopes for the future to be real and possible. It is in the presence of faith, as we know that God is with us and calling us on that we can hold the paradox of now and then; of what the fruitful is, what the no longer fruitful is and what can be; a vibrant God filled presence of which we are a part of and fully engaged in. There is with faith the acknowledgement that Isaiah testified to, that God’s ways are not our ways. We could say, that God’s eyes are not our eyes. I would say that God’s timing is not our timing and in the presence of faith we know this to be ok for God is good and God’s judgement is love and the movements of love are grace.

So, who knows how much fruit a tree will yield? Who knows how tall and wide a tree will grow? I’m sure the people of Lahaina didn’t anticipate having to adapt their city life to exist around a rather large tree. So perhaps we could say, let us have the eyes of both the owner and the gardener! Let us look at and acknowledge the paradox of what is, what could be and what will be. Let us be willing to dig the soil and apply the food. Let us be willing to cut something down if we need to. Let us hold it all in a climate of grace and opportunity and above all let us hold it all in faith which says that God’s sense of time is with us both here in this moment and calling us forward from within all the moments to come.

[1] Good to Great, Jim Collins, p85.